Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/music theory


Hi! I hope you can explain this to me: I have a song (by the band Queen) I am learning on the piano. I did take music theory class but will studying the song by using what I did learn in music theory class actually help me play the song?

The song feautures some interesting chords like the Bflat11 chord. Could one use nonfunctional harmony and write the chord with roman numerals? Or is that just for triads and seven chords?

I understand that when people write/compose music they have rules they follow like we do when we speak a language. Do people (and I am even thinking about Bach) follow a lot of rules or do they just play what they liked?

Hello Hank,

To answer your third question first: I'm always being asked similar questions, and I've come to the conclusion it would be easier to explain if we were corresponding in French or German rather than English, the reason being they are both inflected languages.  In French there are two genders, in German three; in both languages an adjective alters to agree with whatever gender and number its qualifying noun is; verb endings alter to reflect the person and tense of the verb; and in addition, in German noun/adjective endings also alter to reflect their case.  Once you become fluent in each, this becomes completely unconscious - you don't need an explanation why you do this (and I don't think one can ever be forthcoming), it just IS.  French and German authors develop individual stylistic features but the fundament of grammatically and syntactically correct language is a given.

Now, if a child, or a foreigner, writes a letter in which adjectives don't agree with nouns, or (in German) the verb isn't at the end of the sentence, this isn't an exciting new development in the language, it is simply incorrect.  It may be obvious what the child is trying to say, but theirs is not a viable way of saying it.  Equally, it doesn't matter whether we're talking about a 5,000 word university essay or two paragraphs about "What I did at school today" from a nine-year-old - the rules are still intact.  The subject matter and vocabulary may differ in breadth and complexity, and the essay, being longer, will need a sense of construction and logical progression that the nine-year-old a) won't be able to do and b) won't need because the whole level of composition is different.  Because I'm an adult I can appreciate the essay, but I can still enjoy the child's work on its own merits and for its own sake.  Whereas if I read a foreigner's inaccurate attempt it will at best amuse and at worst irritate, because the basis of our shared understanding, the language, is incorrect.

All Western music regardless of genre is based on a key system which had completely superseded the modal system by the late 17th century, and established its rules during the 18th century. The rules I'm referring to determine what constitutes concord and discord, and how the latter is to be approached and resolved. There was a certain amount of experimentation within the rules, but it wasn't until the 19th century that the definitions changed so that a chord regarded as discordant in the 17th century becomes part of the standard musical vocabulary in the 19th. The rules were first bent, then progressively broken, until by the beginning of the 20th century they could no longer be said to apply and composers either made a conscious decision to return to them or attempted to formulate new systems of their own.  (Since 1945 there's been pointillism, post-Webernism, integral serialism, free dodecaphony, aleatory and indeterminate music, musique concrete, electronic music ...).

The basis of it is that: the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones; the two predominating diatonic scales, major and minor, are constructed in exactly the same way in all 12 keys; the various degrees of the scale and the triads built up on them are of greater or lesser importance in relation to the keynote; and we have the concept of "related" keys, which makes it easy to move from one key to another, either directly or via other, more closely related, keys. (This is modulation, and it is the ability to modulate that makes Western music unique.) So once you have firmly established your home key, you have a network of interconnections and interrelations that underpins every note you write, and its the relationship between chords rather than the chords themselves that is all-important.

It's only in the 19th century that composers start writing "popular" music - the stuff that people could play at home for themselves rather than go to concerts to hear virtuoso performers play. This parlour music was technically within most amateurs' reach and tonally pretty simple - for the first time there was a separation between "art" or "classical" music, which looked forward, and "popular" music, which looked backward to a simpler, more clear-cut harmonies.  The average music-lover didn't understand or like too much harmonic experimentation and on the whole they still don't, which is why most pop, C&W, reggae etc is still in the 17th century as far as harmonic vocabulary is concerned.

To go back to your first question: imagine you have to memorise and recite a 10-verse poem a) in a language you speak extremely well/fluently b) in a language you're learning, so you're coming to understand how to construct sentences even if you don't have much of a vocabulary c) in a language you don't know at all, so you have to learn the poem phonetically as a string of sounds without knowing what they mean.  Which will be quickest to learn?  The more understanding you have of how music works, the easier you'll find it to learn.

And yes, you can analyse all chords using Roman numerals but unless you tell me what key we're in I don't know where Bb stands in relation to it.  As I've already said, the chords themselves don't matter - it's their relationships with each other that are all-important.

Hope this helps.  If you like to tell me which Queen song you're learning, I can analyse it harmonically for you.  

Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting

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Clare Redfarn


All aspects of the academic/theoretical side of music, including harmony, counterpoint, elementary composition, history, harmonic analysis, aural training, sightreading - the lot! Please note I'm not primarily a composer so I can't help with composition beyond what's required for Grade 8 theory or A'level. And don't ask me about psychoacoustics or music psychology as I have no knowledge of, nor interest in, either subject.


57 years as pianist (soloist and accompanist); 42 years as harpsichordist (soloist and continuist); 10 years as violinist and 6 years as bassoonist (youth orchestras/chamber groups); 45 years as piano teacher, coach in performance/interpretation (all ages, instruments and levels) and private tutor (mainly the old O'level, Grade VI+ ABRSM theory/practical musicianship, A'level and undergraduates); 20 years as ballet pianist (Cecchetti syllabus).

Member of Musicians' Union in Britain 1978-1989 and 1991-2009.

I've been writing professionally since I was 20 - too many programme notes to count over the years and a number of articles. Additionally, from 1996-2000 I was a Music Assessor for London Arts and as such regularly wrote critiques of concerts given by recipients of Arts Council funding.

MA in European Cultural Policy & Administration (Warwick University, 1994)
B Mus with Honours (London University, 1977)
Postgraduate Diploma in Arts Administration (City University, 1982)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Piano Teaching (1976)
Licentiate of Royal Academy of Music in Harpsichord Teaching (1978)

Studied RAM Junior School (1966-74), then as full-time student (1974-78).

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